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About this Article
Written by: Shelley Howard
Written on: May 3rd, 2004
Tags: energy & sustainability
Thumbnail by: Bio-Beetle Rental Cars
About the Author
Shelley Howard was a senior at the University of Southern California majoring in Chemical Engineering in the spring of 2004. In the future, she would like to further investigate, design, and implement accessible infrastructure for alternative fuel sources.
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Volume VI Issue II > Biodiesel: A Realistic Alternative?
Biodiesel is a renewable source of energy that could potentially reduce the world's dependence on coal and crude oil. It is a byproduct of refined vegetable and soybean oils, and it contains almost the same amount of energy per gallon as traditional diesel while having cleaner emissions when consumed. Biodiesel is not a mainstream fuel in the United States because there is not yet an infrastructure to support it. If its cost were reduced, biodiesel would be more appealing to consumers, causing its usage to increase.

Introduction

As the name implies, fossil fuels come from the remains of prehistoric life. And because there is a finite amount of these remains, it makes sense that fossil fuels, too, are limited. Fossil fuels—natural gas (methane), crude oil, and coal—are the primary source of electrical power, automotive fuels, plastics, and heat worldwide. But modern society cannot be so dependent on these nonrenewable natural resources for long, needing an alternative to satiate the global increase in energy consumption.
Biodiesel, a potential alternative to fossil fuels, is a liquid fuel produced from organic materials. That is, biodiesel is the product of the chemical reaction between vegetable oil and alcohol—both readily available and inexpensive substances. By defining the problems of the current fuel supply in the United States, and by explaining the characteristics, production, and usage of biodiesel, we can clearly see that biodiesel is a viable and attractive energy alternative.

The Problem

We have heard that fossil fuels are being consumed at alarming rates, but whether or not supplies are actually near depletion is a controversial question. The oil industry argues that available reserves are sufficient to meet the growing energy demand for another three centuries. For example, Exxon Mobil—the largest oil company in the world—owns oil reserves in 25 countries with an additional 62 deepwater reserves [1]. If tapped, these holdings have the potential to produce hundreds of millions of gallons of oil daily. Environmentalists, on the other hand, challenge this claim and argue that oil reserves will last only another 20 years [2]. But regardless of whether the fuel supply will last a decade or a few centuries, we know that time is running out. With current technology, there is no way to know exactly what percentage remains in the earth, so our best bet for the future is to decrease our use of crude oil and coal. Instead, we can use renewable energy sources such as biodiesel.
A potential switch to biodiesel has another benefit: neither environmentalists nor oil companies argue with the fact that fossil fuels are dirtier than biodiesel. Gasoline, traditional diesel, and coal are dirty fuels because they contain compounds that pollute the environment—affect​ing both air and groundwater quality.

Pollution

Pollutants, including sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, are released when the fossil fuels are burned. Coal is commonly burned in power plants to generate electricity while gasoline is generally burned in the engines of automobiles and trucks. Gasoline, diesel, and coal contain sulfur that is released to the atmosphere during combustion. The combination of sulfur with atmospheric moisture results in acid rain,, a serious problem with many adverse effects: harm to marine life in lakes and rivers, corrosion of metal objects, stripping of car paint, and accumulation of harmful particles in your lungs [3].
The combustion of gasoline, diesel, and coal also produces nitrogen oxide—a compound that decreases air quality. Nitrogen oxide is the reddish-brown component in smog that can cause respiratory inflammation, swelling, and asthma—problems which affect over 1.4 million residents in the greater Los Angeles area alone.